Novel Writing – Back on Track (again)

TrainTrack
Obligatory Clichéd Track Photograph

This is one of my weekly updates on the progress of my debut crime novel, Safe Hands, about an ageing safe cracker forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts.

In last week’s post I laid out the reasons for my poor writing performance (lack of planning) along with some idea of how I was going to turn things around (making a plan). Seems obvious and simple, because it is, really.

And it worked. I definitely achieved a whole lot more in the last 7 days, than the previous week. Did I achieve everything I wanted to and spend all of the time I’d alloted? No. But I was pretty close and I’ve got 1200 new words down and a lot of restructuring done.

Aside from the extra planning, the other reason for the improvement was linking up with writing buddy, Maria Smith. Our mid-week check-in by email really helps us both to stay on track. You should definitely follow Maria’s journey over at First Draft Cafe, where you can also pick up loads of tips and inspiration to help with your writing.

That Was The Week What Was

Here’s how I got on compared to the objectives I set . . .

  1. I will complete the structural overhaul – specifically removing all of the chapters that will now not make sense in the current draft.

COMPLETED FOR FIRST DRAFT. I cut thousands of words and a number of redundant sequences of the book.

  1. Based on the critique received from my writing group on the opening chapter, I will complete the edit of Chapter One.

NOT COMPLETE. I’m saving this job for the next phase of edits.

  1. I will write a brand new chapter, containing the minor character I feel is now needed to flesh out the back story of my antagonist, but to also add more tension and conflict to the main narrative.

NOT COMPLETE BUT . . . Instead I wrote 1200 new words of a key scene in the novel, between Mickey and his son. The location of the original scene was changed and I did a complete rewrite from scratch. The initial response from my critique group was positive and I’m confident that the novel will benefit from the new chapter.

The Week Ahead . . .

I’ll try something different this week and will share with you my target for the amount of time I will spend on the novel and just give a general overview of the areas I’ll be working on. I’ll spend a minimum of 3 hours on the novel – aiming for six 30 minute sessions over the course of the week. This was my target last week and I finished 30 minutes short of my target.

In terms of the areas I’m working on, I’ll definitely attempt the chapter that introduces a brand new minor character. This isn’t some arbitrary decision based on wanting to write a new person into the story. It came from the work I did recently, using character monologues – specifically the monologue I wrote for my main antagonist, Graham Southey. The new character arose as part of his backstory and will now allow me to more elegantly solve a narrative issue I picked up in the read through of my messy first draft. I need to illustrate the extent of Southey’s dark side and just what depths he is capable of sinking to. It should add extra tension and suspense to the story.

I will also complete the chapter I’ve been writing this week, where I have to finish a difficult scene of conflict between Mickey and his son.

Once again, it’s been great to get inspiration from a successful author, from my little bonus chat with Crime writer, William Shaw who passionately believes the secret to improving your writing is to . . . well, WRITE! That podcast episode will be released over at Joined Up Writing in the next couple of days, so be sure to check it out.

In the meantime, let me know how your own writing projects are going. What are your tips for making time to write? All at once or little and often? Let me know in the comments.

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Parker and why we love an anti-hero

I’ve always been a fan of reading Crime Fiction but, aside from a couple of humorous short stories, was never inspired to write in that genre. I loved Rankin’s Rebus, Connelly’s Bosch and, of course Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, but writing a police procedural or following the investigations of a lone detective just didn’t appeal to me.  Everything changed when, a couple of years ago, a tweet caught my eye – from comedy writer Graham Linehan – waxing lyrical about ‘The Parker Novels’.

 

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Richard Stark’s debut ‘Parker’ Novel

Who is Parker?

Well, for a start, he really isn’t ‘The Good Guy’ – in any sense of the word. Unlike Rebus et al, he’s on the wrong side of the law, a ruthless single-minded criminal always looking for the next big score. He is the creation of the ‘Crime Writer’s Crime Writer’, Donald E Westlake, writing under his pseudonym of Richard Stark. Parker is merciless, amoral and has a complete lack of empathy, but like most anti-heroes, he does have his own strict code – a set of rules as inflexible as he is. There’s a full run-down of those rules on the 50 Years of Parker website, but the gist is that he is the ultimate professional. The job is everything. Killing a man is the last resort – but only because it tends to bring unwanted interest from The Law. He is totally loyal to his colleagues right up until the point they try to double-cross him, at which point they become his mortal enemy. Revenge is a recurring theme throughout the novels and the stories are littered with the bodies of those who thought they could betray Parker and live to tell the tale.

Any redeeming features?

Even for an anti-hero, Parker’s redeeming qualities are pretty thin on the ground. Yet Stark created a protagonist that readers found compelling and addictive – there are 24 Parker novels and at least three film adaptations.

For one thing, Parker gets things done. He makes things happen and that alone is an attractive trait for a main character. He’s decisive and straightforward. If you’re looking for some existential angst or emotional hand-wringing, look elsewhere. That’s not to say that Stark doesn’t put his main character into some sticky situations. Parker spends most of his time against the ropes and railing against the huge faceless criminal organisation called The Syndicate. In the opening chapters of his first caper, ‘The Hunter’ he is betrayed and left for dead. In a cast of low-life, disloyal undesirables, Parker stands out because he lives his life to such a strict set of rules. He’s almost monastic in his dedication. And, most importantly, he is very, very good at what he does. In fact, he’s the best and that’s irrestible to a reader. Throw in the fact that Parker is always the smartest guy in the room, able to cut anyone down to size with his deadpan wit, and it’s easy to see why he’s such an enduring figure.

He doesn’t have the vulnerability that so many other anti-heroes often exhibit, but his greatest strength – his ‘code’ – is also his biggest flaw. That unwillingness to bend, to double-cross the other guy first – is often where his problems begin.

My Inspiration

Stark’s prose is terse, tight and full of wit and after only a few pages of The Hunter, I was hooked. This was the type of character I wanted to write. A remorseless, unapologetic bad guy that everyone loves. The man that can walk into a room and say or do anything he damn pleases. And so, my leading man, Mickey Blake, was born.

Like Parker, Mickey is a career criminal, but is very much in the British villain mould. Unlike Stark’s man, by the time we meet Mickey at the beginning of my novel, he has plenty of vulnerability lurking beneath a tough, sarcastic exterior. In any given situation, he will choose the most inappropriate comment, just to score a cheap point, get a laugh or gain the advantage over whichever ne’erdowell he’s faced with.

In Stark’s novels, Parker’s stories unfold in third person point of view, but I wanted my readers to really get under Mickey’s skin and into his head as he’s forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and an estranged son that hates his guts. That meant choosing a first person perspective and it’s been fun ‘being’ Mickey during the months I’ve been working on my first draft.

I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to emulate Richard Stark’s style, but I do hope that in Mickey Blake, I can create a British anti-hero that can at least hold his own with Parker – The Man With The Getaway Face.

Who is your favourite anti-hero? Or maybe you prefer the good guys? Drop me a line in the comments below and let me know your favourite Crime books too.

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